Tom Dickinson was touring China in 1988 when he found himself in a train compartment full of Russians. This unlikely Cold War encounter eventually spawned a nonprofit that has connected the Russians’ hometown in Siberia to folks in the United States for two decades.
Siberian Bridges marks its 20th anniversary Oct. 8 with a celebration at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. It has a unique niche among Minnesota’s nonprofits. Its work focuses on the city of Chita, about 4,700 east of Moscow, which was “closed” to foreigners until 1988, said Dickinson.
Working in an obscure part of the world has meant that supporters were nonprofit pioneers, sending English teachers, library books, and toys and basic needs to a nearby orphanage. But there was a downside.
“Americans give [money] to places they know about, and nobody knows about it,” said Dickinson, a piano teacher in Minneapolis. “And we’re not about an issue. It’s about a place.”
As a result, Siberian Bridges’ work has ebbed and flowed over the years. It’s a tiny nonprofit, run by volunteers, with maybe $10,000 to its name. But the wheels of ideas are always spinning, and volunteers are encouraged to find areas of interest and explore them.
Chuck Ritchie, a retired Russian language teacher from the Blake School, joined the nonprofit about a decade ago. Since then he’s forged ties with an orphanage near Chita, sending bimonthly shipments of everything from pens to bandages and art books.
“The kids know they have friends in Minnesota,” said Ritchie, “that there are people on the other side of the world who care about them.”
Siberian Bridges is seeking donations such as children’s picture books, encyclopedias and research material, and books in German and French. It also plans to bring its first group of tourists to the region next year.
“For people who are that isolated, and coupled with poverty, it’s essential that we don’t let go,” said Dickinson.
For more information, go to www.siberianbridges.org.